SKIING IN SPAIN: GREAT PYRENEES

A touch of elegance has attracted a loyal, and occasionally royal, following.

When the founders of vail set about designing the resort, they cited several European destinations as their inspiration in design and philosophy. Legendary Swiss ski towns St. Moritz and Zermatt you’ll of course know, as well as Italy’s Cortina. But “Spain’s Val d’Arán” might not ring a bell.

The beautiful and wild Val d’Arán lies within the mountains that separate Spain from France, and it was, in fact, under development as foundations were being laid in Colorado. Today, the region is known as Baqueira Beret, and its four mostly interlinked areas make up the largest ski area in Spain. Just as Vail has its hero- founder Pete Siebert, Baqueira has Luis Arias, a Spanish national ski champion who chose his spot for its exposure to snow-bearing clouds coming off the Atlantic and a latitude that brings sunnier and longer days. He built his base village with an eye to tasteful design in local wood and stone, a sharp contrast to other European resort construction of the time, which went in for Bauhaus-inspired rectangular concrete.

That touch of elegance has attracted a loyal, and occasionally royal, following. The Spanish royal family owns a chalet here in an enclave known as Pleta de Baqueira (or “the King’s hamlet”). These days it’s Prince Felipe, Spain’s next king, along with his sisters Princess Elena and Princess Cristina, whom you may spot on the slopes surrounded by skiing bodyguards.

You’ll need to be lucky to play paparazzo, because there’s quite a lot of ground to cover at Baqueria Beret. It’s served by more than 30 lifts on 4,750 acres, with 3,300-plus feet of vertical, and a reputation for some of the best bowl skiing in Europe. The skiing, spread over the four areas, is largely above the treeline, and the off-piste opportunities are the main attraction. Heli-skiing is an option, but you don’t need a helicopter to access some great terrain in the sector between Baqueira and Bonaigua, or the couloirs at Ecornacrabes, which appropriately translates as “where goats fall.” A recently added lift improves access to some of the resort’s best-known runs, including the North Face and Luis Arias, a wonderful 1.5-mile-long expert piste.

To get all of these slopes to yourself, you need only wake at a reasonable hour. The lifts open at 9, but few Spaniards seem inclined to rise that early. Instead, skiing ramps up late morning, and the pattern continues throughout the day with restaurants serving dinner around nine in the evening. Aprés-ski gets lively after midnight and lasts until dawn. Which is something the architects of Vail forgot to include in their master plan.

SNOW TIdbits:
*Val d’ Arán in the Catalan region, is an area with a history so complex that the local tourist board publishes information in six languages — English falls behind the local Aranes dialect, Catalan, Spanish, and French, and just in front of German. But locals are some of friendliest, happy folk you’ll meet anywhere, so language is only a tiny barrier.

*The closest international airport to the resort is Toulouse in France, approximately 100 miles/two hours’ drive away. Barcelona is 185 miles and a four-hour drive.

*Food is another great reason to visit. In March, the Arán valley celebrates its annual “Month of Caviar,” but the place is a mecca for seafood of all types, shipped in fresh from the nearby Galician coast. Look out for crab, king prawns, and a kind of large barnacle called perecebes. These are all served up in numerous tapas bars — along with equally popular local game, lamb, rabbit — by local chefs who enjoy life as much as they enjoy good food, with the result that you’ll find the kind of honest food that would merit a Michelin star in a restaurant that was trying hard for one. Try Esquiro for regional cuisine, or La Borda Lobato, which specializes in roasting young animals such as lamb or piglets, and then carving them up whole at your table.